Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

SAMUEL JOHNSON 291 with dependants as poor as himself, and lending that peculiar vessel full of coal, the very mention of which, improper as it is to ears polite, deepens the pathos of the story, he worked for all sorts of booksellers, notably for one Griffiths, who was a hard taskmaster; and for this man and others he produced innumerable little tales for children, which no doubt now float about unrecognized-save one, “Goody Two Shoes.” Into this, as into everything else which he has written, Goldsmith has thrown his whole heart. There is no despising nor looking down upon his subject with the simple doctor; hence, poetical in spirit, “he touched nothing,” said Johnson, “that he did not adorn." From such a man such praise should be immortal, as indeed it will be.

By far the most prominent figure in the literary world of England in the eighteenth century is Dr. Samuel Johnson, the representative Englishman of his day, firm, stalwart, honest, dogmatic, truthful, somewhat tyrannical, butalways tender, beautiful in heart and humble-minded, persevering, and ardent for the good cause. tributed to English literature a true novel, in the right sense of the word, Rasselas," known as one of the best of that species once so prevalent, and now so much shunned, “a moral tale.” Moral tales were then in fashion, both here and abroad. The purpose of the writer was not only to anuse, it was to instruct, not only to pass the time of the reader, but also to touch his heart, and make him reflect upon the goodness and greatness of God, and the immutable decrees of Providence, acting upon the patience, endurance, and fortunes of the hero and heroine. The demand for this kind of tale has long ceased. People are now too impatient to be taught; or they fancy that amusement

He con

66

[ocr errors]

only is their due, as it surely is their aim. There is a story told of an officer in an Irish inn, who called the waiter to him, and complained of the dirty plate on which was the chop provided for his meal. Sure,” said the waiter, "your honour knows that every one must eat dirt in the course of his life.” “I know that, you rascal,” cried the officer; “but another time bring me the chop on one plate and the dirt on the other; I prefer to mix them for myself." This will illustrate the feelings of our age, which has been defended by some critics for its impatience at being taught or talked to. No man who writes a novel or a story, says one, has a right to make it the vehicle for anything else but the plot of the little drama that he unfolds. In short, they prefer to have the moral on one dish, and the tale on the other, and to mix them for themselves. But Johnson's “Rasselas” deserves to be read on account of its real merit, and from its being a representative book. It was appropriately written by one of the noblest, best, and poorest of men who ever lived, in the nights of one week, to pay the expenses of his mother's funeral. It is a tale about a Prince of Abyssinia, the author knowing (though he knew almost all that was to be known in his day) about as much about Abyssinia as he knew of the inhabitants and geography of the moon. “It is, in fact," says a writer, "a series of essays on various subjects of morality and religion-on the efficacy of pilgrimages, the state of departed souls, the probability of the re-appearance of the dead, the dangers of solitude, &c.” It is well remarked, too, that in Abyssinia the Prince and his companions talk just as wisely and as well as did Johnson and Reynolds in Bolt Court or at the club. It is tinged, this little fan

HORACE WALPOLE.

293

[ocr errors]

ciful romance, with the author's habitual melancholy, but it is full of sound sense, and is a perfect mine of deep reflection. It may not live except in the ponderous works of its author; for the world grows so full of books that it will frequently be overlooked ; but whoever reads it, will find that he has not wasted his time in company with the very fictitious Prince of Abyssinia.

A curious work in its way, without any morality, not even the little assumption of it that its author could put on, is “ The Castle of Otranto," published in 1764 by Horace Walpole, and written by him as a kind of proof of strength at one sitting. It is usually printed with a much prettier and purer story, "The Old English Baron,” by Miss Clara Reeve, and may be taken as the first of a long series of tales of a “Rococo” taste, made up of ghosts, old castles, secret passages, armour, old oak chests, seneschals, my lady and my lord and such dolls and upholstery as are found in the predecessors of Sir Walter Scott. Walpole published it anonymously, as from a manuscript found in the north of England, and printed at Naples, in black letter, in the year 1529. “I wished it to be believed ancient,” wrote Walpole, who loved to talk of this literary success, "and almost everybody was imposed upon." And yet he blamed poor Chatterton for the Rowley forgeries ! Yes, everybody was imposed upon who knew nothing of old times. The monks and knights are modern fine gentlemen, dressed in theatrical costumes or “ Brummagem" armour; the whole story is improbable and wild; and yet every young person reads it with pleasure on account of its “lovely” style. So much of the man himself does the story breathe, that “Otranto" might be a magnified copy of the sham-Gothic dollhouse at Strawberry Hill; and Walpole, who "loved to gaze on Gothic toys through Gothic glass," seems to have thrown his renaissance and semi-antique life as much into the one as into the other. There can, however, be no doubt that this story had a very powerful effect on the writers that followed; nay, that it led, amongst other things, to the study of architecture, mediævalism, the love of the Gothic, the writing of Sir Walter Scott's great romances, and even to the revival of the love of colour, glitter, show, and pictorial decoration observable in the religious services of a large portion of the people of this land.

[graphic]
[graphic][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

T has been already explained how certain

literary fashions, or even single perform-
ances, begot other fashions and perform-
ances; how the drama arose from the

monks feeling that there was a necessity to teach the “mysteries" of their religion to those who could not read nor write; how it passed through the romantic and historical phases, until, growing corrupt, it

gave rise to certain self-constituted censors of the press, the periodical essayists; so that the government of good, if not the finger of God, may be seen in the world; and without the Church even, there is always to be found, as in the days of the wicked Israelitish kings, a band of men, whose hearts God has touched,” to watch over the teaching of the people, and to keep it pure, wholesome, and manly. This is of course the view of only one phase of the question ; but it is a broad, wholesome, and earnest view, and will bear thought and inspection.

The English, a people always either political or religious, and often both, were ever fond of lecturing their

« PreviousContinue »